- This story of Hong Kong police corruption in the 1960s and ’70s, starring Aaron Kwok and Tony Leung as corrupt officers, is an ambitious undertaking
- Artfully shot with sumptuous scenes, it’s a sprawling epic that sometimes loses its plot momentum, focusing on the leads’ romances rather than their crimes
Philip Yung Tsz-kwong’s Where the Wind Blows is an artistically accomplished, genre-bending epic of the sort that is rarely attempted in Hong Kong cinema.
The writer-director takes the true-life stories of two of the “Four Great Sergeants” – the most notoriously corrupt police officers in 1960s and ’70s Hong Kong – and freely turns them into tragic heroes in a fever dream of gangland bravado, star-crossed romances and wartime trauma.
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The film, which marks Yung’s first feature since 2015’s acclaimed Port of Call, may appear at times to be echoing Wong Kar-wai’s aesthetics with its slow-motion shots of smoking, repeated use of poetic onscreen texts, and sights of Tony Leung Chiu-wai pining for the one who got away.
But Where the Wind Blows offers so much more of everything else – from its sweeping historical scope to its ambivalent depiction of police corruption – that it is very much its own beast. This is a period biopic stapled to a crime thriller and decorated with a healthy sprinkling of history.
By adopting a kaleidoscopic structure for its decades-spanning narrative, this dual portrait of police sergeants Lui Lok (Aaron Kwok Fu-shing) and Nam Kong (Tony Leung) ceaselessly jumps between the two to cover everything from their beginnings in an era when graft was the norm, to their meteoric rise to power in the 1960s, to their final years in exile.
The hot-headed Lui is portrayed initially as an idealistic young man (played by Chui Tien-you) struggling to adapt to a culture in which everyone is on the take.
His subsequent rise through the ranks is ironically shown to be orchestrated by his resourceful Shanghainese wife, Tsai Zhen (Du Juan), who secretly pulls strings with the city’s organised-crime syndicates behind his back.
Nam is a wealthy young man (played by Lam Yiu-sing) who becomes a sharpshooter after he’s taken in by a Japanese commander during the war. His journey to becoming Lui’s fiercest rival in the police force is no less convoluted.
Leung’s charming delivery keeps things interesting, although the fine line between good and evil that his scheming character straddles is occasionally too vaguely drawn to be effective.
Regrettably, Where the Wind Blows is less interested in cataloguing the intricacies of their criminal activities than in contemplating their romantic heartbreak.
Lui’s marriage is marred by his longing for a girl (Jessie Li) he lost during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong in the early 1940s, while Nam’s unconsummated desire for Tsai feels arbitrary at best.
As the stand-ins for the two other “Great Sergeants”, Michael Chow Man-kin’s seemingly righteous Bee and Patrick Tam Yiu-man’s duplicitous Yim leave only passing impressions.
Meanwhile, Tse Kwan-ho’s supporting role as the legendary drug dealer Ng Sik-ho, better known as Crippled Ho, is at once gripping and far too brief.
All of them are ultimately overshadowed by Michael Hui Koon-man’s scene-stealing turn as Independent Commission Against Corruption officer George Lee.
Hui only shows up in the 1970s-set scenes that bookend the film, but his powerful speech about the impact of corruption has likely done enough to make him a favourite in the best supporting actor race at the Hong Kong Film Awards.
In spite of its wildly ambitious approach to storytelling and stunning production values – the film does engross with scene after sumptuously staged scene throughout its 144-minute duration – there is something inaccessible about this sprawling and frequently brooding effort.
Its relative lack of narrative momentum, the repeated detours from the protagonists’ larger-than-life criminal careers, and their sometimes indecipherable motivations all combine to render Where the Wind Blows more of a visual feast for an art-house-inclined audience than the entertaining caper that mainstream viewers might have hoped for instead.
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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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